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Adventures in water marketing

The headline on this story is about Texans’ increasing interest in recycling water. That sounds nice, doesn’t it? But there’s another way of describing it that maybe isn’t so appealing.

Experts say recycled wastewater will play a key role in satisfying the thirst of a rapidly growing population. While reuse now provides 2 percent of Texas’ water, state officials say that over the next half-century the drought-proof source will account for at least 10 percent of new supplies.

To reach the goal, state lawmakers may require at least 20 percent of any new funding for water-related infrastructure to go toward conservation or reuse. The requirement is part of House Bill 4, which would allow a one-time transfer of $2 billion into a new revolving, low-interest loan program for water projects.

“This is a robust and reliable source,” said Jorge Arroyo, an engineer and director of innovative water technologies at the Texas Water Development Board, the state’s water-planning agency. “Its future is very promising.”

[…]

Before drought began gripping the state in 2011, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality typically approved fewer than 20 reuse requests from cities and water districts each year. The number jumped to 32 two years ago and 38 last year, with 25 applications already pending this year, the agency said.

Arroyo attributed the increasing interest in reclaimed water in part to the lingering drought, which covers 74 percent of the state. He also credited improving technology, which now is capable of turning sewage into water so clean it’s almost distilled.

[…]

Water managers see wetlands as a reliable, less-expensive solution to more dams, aqueducts and pipelines that deliver water over long distances. Wetlands allow them to reuse water that they already paid at least once to store and purify.

For all the interest in toilet-to-tap technology, more new potable reuse projects will take the indirect route through wetlands, rather than go straight to the faucet, Arroyo said. Meanwhile, most water reuse will continue to be for irrigation, landscaping and purposes other than human consumption.

I’m going to step out on a limb here and venture that if you were in charge of an advertising campaign for water recycling, you might prefer to steer clear of the phrase “toilet to tap technology”. I mean, you probably don’t want people thinking too much about where that water originated. I know, I know, this is ultimately the way it goes for all of our water, with or without any fancy new technology. I suspect most people would rather imagine that their water all comes from a nice reservoir or a cool mountain stream or something like that. It may not matter that much if most of the recycled water goes to things like irrigation or decoration or other non-drinking purposes. I’m just saying.

Who gets to use the water?

There’s a lot more demand for an increasingly limited supply.

Lake Austin

More than miles separate the rice farms of the Texas coast and the Highland Lakes, where the outward march of Austin is marked by each new house, strip mall and marina.

They are divided by how to share the water of the Colorado River, pitting agriculture against recreation in a state that values both.

Growers have turned on a new plan that would guide allocations in the lower Colorado basin for the next few decades, grousing loudly about water cutbacks to help preserve playgrounds. Meanwhile, those who live and work around Lakes Buchanan and Travis want guarantees of boater-friendly levels at the reservoirs.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality will consider the plan by April. How the three-member panel rules could influence management of Lake Conroe and other popular reservoirs across the state.

The water fight reflects changes in Texas since farmers began drawing from the Colorado in 1885. The Lower Colorado River Authority built the lakes to generate power and tame floods in the 1930s, and the state’s population has surged since then, with more and more people moving into communities that barely existed, if at all, when the dams were constructed.

The state projects the population of the lower Colorado basin to double to 2.8 million people by 2060, and it is clear that there is not enough water to meet everyone’s needs.

“The issue is, Texas is a different place than when this system was set up,” said Andrew Sansom, executive director of the River Systems Institute at Texas State University. “We have to find a way to equitably allocate these shortages in a future that is nothing like the time of its origin.”

Growing population + drought + old rules = conflict. Obviously, agriculture is important, but I’m willing to bet that the revenue derived from tourism, recreation, and property taxes on lakefront real estate add up to a pretty penny, and will likely be more valuable on the whole than agriculture soon if it isn’t already. We know what we need to do – conservation, desalinization, not using treated water for irrigation, etc etc etc – and we know it will cost money and cause heartburn. We still have to do it.

You may be wondering if all that recent rain has helped these lakes recover. Sadly, not much.

Despite this already being the 11th-wettest July on record in Central Texas, officials said the unusually large amount of rain has not been enough to make a significant impact on lake levels in the area.

Bob Rose, chief meteorologist for the Lower Colorado River Authority, said Austin has received 5.82 inches of rain this month at Camp Mabry — a far cry from July 2011, when the city received 0.05 inches of rain.

[…]

LCRA spokeswoman Clara Tuma said Lake Austin received so much rain so quickly Sunday that officials were forced to open two floodgates to let out some of the water. The last time they did that was during Tropical Storm Hermine in September 2010, Tuma said.

However, because June was such a dry month and because the heaviest rains were not in the watershed, the storms did not make an appreciable impact on lake levels, she said. Lake Travis remains 28 feet below its historical July average.

Long way to go still. I’d be happy to send them some of our rain if I could, but then we might need it.

Conservation is still the best water plan

The state of Texas needs to do better at it.

As Texas recovers from the severe drought of the last two years, water experts say that conservation is the easiest way to ensure that the state will have enough of water for future growth. Fixing leaks is one method that took on added importance since the drought caused pipes to crack as soils dried out and shifted. But homeowners and businesses also have plenty of room to cut back on water use, especially on lawns, which account for at least half of the average home’s summertime water demand. Farmers, who account for 60 percent of the overall state’s water use, can also save more, though their share is already declining as cities grow.

The need to conserve was driven home by the 2012 state water plan, which opens with the statement: “In serious drought conditions, Texas does not and will not have enough water to meet the needs of its people, its businesses, and its agricultural enterprises.”

“Conservation is an essential part of the state water plan,” says John Nielsen-Gammon, the state climatologist. “It’s part of how we get from point A to point B. It’s also the least expensive to implement.”

The push toward conservation is gathering pace, especially in cities. This spring, Dallas —  a heavy water user, with about 120,000 gallons per year on average for a single-family household last year — announced that it was implementing permanent watering restrictions, limiting homeowners to two days of watering per week. Austin is also considering enacting permanent restrictions — something that El Paso, the driest major city in Texas, has had in place for a few decades.

“I think the best water management practice is to always restrict the use of outdoor watering,” state Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, said at a committee hearing this spring, in the wake of a visit to El Paso.

But enacting restrictions can be wrenching, especially in places that pride themselves on small government. Both Midland and Odessa — both of them in the perpetually dry Permian Basin — put in place restrictions for the first time last year, amid the worsening drought. “We don’t respond really well to, ‘Okay, the government says you’ve got to do this, and by God you’re going to do it or we’re going to string you up,’” Midland Mayor Wes Perry said last year, as he explained Midland’s initial preference for voluntary restrictions (which did not work).

That sound you hear is my heart breaking for the poor, put-upon people of Midland and Odessa. People who live in deserts should not expect to be able to water their lawns on demand.

To me, using tiered rates to charge a premium to high end water users, and dedicating a portion of those proceeds to fixing leaks, is a cornerstone strategy for conservation. I get that the high end users themselves don’t much care for this approach, but who cares? Let their big water bills serve as incentive to reduce their usage. I don’t even understand the argument against this.

Recycling water

The Trib continues its look at the present and future of water use in Texas with a story about reclaiming wastewater.

“Reclaimed water,” the term for cleaned-up wastewater that gets reused, currently provides a little less than 3 percent of Texas’ water supply, often for purposes like irrigating golf courses. The figure is projected to rise to 10 percent by 2060, according to the Texas Water Development Board.

Reclaimed water “is a way to stretch our existing supplies and potentially avoid expensive infrastructure projects,” said Myron Hess, the manager of the Texas water program for the National Wildlife Federation. Putting potable water on grass is especially wasteful, environmentalists say.

When cities do not “reclaim” their wastewater, which is also called effluent, it generally gets dumped into creeks and rivers. Austin, for example, puts its effluent into the Colorado River, and wastewater from Dallas goes into the Trinity River (which ultimately helps supply water to Houston).

To some degree, Texas has been a leader on reclaimed water. The San Antonio Water System boasts of having the “nation’s largest recycled water system.” Some of that recycled water flows down the San Antonio River, at the heart of the city’s popular River Walk, and some goes to golf courses, parks or industry.

El Paso, the driest major city in Texas, built a pioneering project in the mid-1980s that injects treated wastewater into the Hueco Bolson aquifer, where it swirls around and mingles with existing supplies before eventually being pumped back up for chlorination and drinking. (The local water utility estimates that it takes more than two years before water comes back up after being sent into the aquifer.)

No point being squeamish about it. One way or another, it all eventually finds its way back to your water supply. For things like irrigation or some industrial uses, there’s no need for the water to come from the same source that feeds your kitchen tap. It makes all kinds of sense for water utilities to think in these terms. You can do something like this yourself on a small scale with a rain barrel or other clever ideas. It’s a lot easier than you think to use less and make the most of the water you have.

The state of water in Texas

The Statesman has a long story about the state of water in Texas and its outlook for the future. Short summary: We’re going to need more than what we’re capable of getting now, and it’s going to cost a lot of money to bridge the shortfall.

2012 State Water Plan

“For most of our recent history, we just treated (water) as if we had an unlimited supply of it. We’re finding to our dismay that that’s not true,” said Andrew Sansom, executive director of the River Systems Institute at Texas State University.

One clear indication that Texans need to rethink how they value water came when the state asked for $53 billion in improvements to prepare the state for a record-breaking drought in the next 50 years.

The cheapest strategy in the Texas Water Development Board’s 2012 water plan is conservation, which would account for 24 percent of the new supply by 2060; the costliest, desalination, would account for about 3.4 percent of the new supply.

But the prospect of a future crisis doesn’t necessarily make consumers more willing to open their wallets.

“It can be hard to convince ratepayers that they need to pay more money to get that security in their supply,” said Robert Mace, the board’s deputy executive administrator for water science and conversation.

It may come as little surprise, then, that lawmakers have failed to ensure sustainable funding for the water plan.

“I don’t think there’s been a greater dereliction of duty” than failing to fund Texas water needs, state Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas , said Jan. 10 in a Business and Commerce Committee hearing, where lawmakers were told that a dwindling water supply can also affect the state power grid, as most energy production relies heavily on water to cool power plants.

You can find the 2012 State Water Plan here if you want a little light reading for your bedside table. We’ve talked about a lot of this stuff before as well – conservation, desalinization, reuse and recycling, infrastructure, and so forth. I’ll refer you again to the Drop By Drop and Sprayed Away reports, as well as the 2011 Regional Water Plan. I truly believe we need to be doing a lot more now to push conservation, because it’s not only the cheapest solution, it also buys us time for implementing the solutions that require capital investment. I strongly believe in tiering water prices in a way that rewards those who use less and charges a premium to those who use the most. I also believe in educating people about ways they can easily reduce their own water usage. One example is capturing rainwater for later use on gardens or lawns. You can buy a decent-sized rain barrel for $150 or less and use your sprinkler less. Every little bit helps, and if you want to avoid seeing future surcharges on your water bill, you’ll need to start thinking of what you can do. NewsTaco has some further reading.

It’s hard out here on a Christmas tree

Another victim of the drought: Texas’ Christmas tree farms.

[T]he Texas Christmas Tree Growers Association estimates that less than half the owners of the state’s 100 Christmas tree farms had watering systems.

Those with the foresight to irrigate saved their trees, but their crop still did not grow as fast or as tall as usual. Also, farmers were saddled with additional electric costs for running water pumps, which they say they are not passing on to customers because of tough economic times.

“The way most of us are making up our losses is by hauling in trees cut in North Carolina, Washington and Oregon to sell,” said Mike Walterscheidt, the tree association’s executive secretary, who has a 23-acre farm near Austin.

In a normal year, he said his homegrown trees would have shot up 18 inches, but he’s seen zero growth this year despite irrigating.

If they’re lucky, we’ll have an El Niño summer next year. If not, there will be more imported trees and more tree farms having hard times.

No grass, no problems

Texas is in the midst of one its worst droughts ever, yet one of the more arid cities in the state is seeing no noticeable drop in its reservoirs. How is that possible? Simple: They got rid of lawns years ago.

For decades this city in far West Texas defied the look of most desert communities, with neighborhoods boasting lush, green lawns and residents freely running their sprinklers.

Then a study released in 1979 showed just how close El Paso was to a crisis: At its rate of water use, the city would run dry within 36 years.

Over the next couple of decades the city took drastic measures to stabilize its water supply, undergoing a philosophical and physical facelift that included ripping up grass from many public places, installing rock and cactus gardens and offering financial incentives for residents to do the same.

Today, El Paso is among the few cities in the drought-stricken state not worrying about water. It’s a distinction El Paso leaders attribute to a conservation plan that other cities in less arid climates such as San Antonio and Austin have tried to a limited extent amid receding water resources and booming population growth.

[…]

Over the past 20 years El Paso has paid residents a combined $11 million – $1 per square foot – to remove their grass and replace it with gravel, cement or desert plants. The city has permanent restrictions on watering days and reduced water consumption by offering special showerheads and rebates for water-efficient toilets.

The plan helped the city avoid a water crisis that other towns across West Texas now face, including the community of Robert Lee, which is rushing to find a new water source before its faucets run dry within the next several months.

Bigger cities facing diminishing water sources in less arid climates are hoping to duplicate El Paso’s success by offering money to their residents in exchange for turf.

Austin offers a $20 to $30 rebate for each 100 square feet of turf removed as part of a pilot program. So far 70 residents have replaced their grass, and the plan may become permanent if the city sees enough water savings. The city also offers up to three free water-efficient toilets per household and rebates for new dishwashers.

San Antonio offers rebates and gift certificates of up to $400 to residents who choose certain grasses, reduce their turf and cut their water consumption. Only about 360 residents have taken part since the program began in 2008, and the utility estimates savings of about 1 million gallons per year. Overall, the city estimates it can save up to a billion gallons annually from all the water-saving measures combined.

Clearly, Austin and San Antonio have a ways to go to catch up to El Paso on this front, but they do employ another effective tool for promoting water conservation, and that’s tiered pricing, in which customers that go above certain levels of usage get charged a premium. As the Austin Contrarian has repeatedly pointed out, charging the “water hogs” more both encourages conservation and helps to subsidize the more sensible among us, and it tends to be a more cost-effective policy than straight-up restrictions on use. Tiered pricing and better irrigation strategies are both central tenets of water conservation policies put forth in recent years by the National Wildlife Federation and the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club – see my posts “Drop By Drop” and “Sprayed Away” for more.

Now no one is going to argue that Houstonians should rip out their front lawns and replace them with gravel or cacti. We normally get a lot more rain than El Paso, so what works there isn’t necessarily sensible here. But there is something lawn-related we ought to be doing, and Chron gardening writer Brenda Beust Smith points it out.

It’s a proven fact. The average suburban St. Augustine lawn uses more water than all the other typically used landscape plants combined, including trees.

It’s also a fact now we have hundreds of beautiful landscape plants available that:

1 Love our heat and humidity (even this extreme cycle).

2 Require very little water.

3 Demand very little maintenance.

4 Are far more beneficial to our overall ecology than are lawn grasses.

Unfortunately, as she points out, pretty much all homeowners associations in the area make it difficult to install natives like buffalograss instead of the water-hogging St. Augustine. Sooner or later, the cities in the area are going to have to do something about that.

“Sprayed Away”

A couple of months ago, I blogged about a report on water conservation from the National Wildlife Federation and the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club. Last week, they came out with a new report, on outdoor water usage and how the demands of summertime increase water consumption in 18 Texas cities, mostly due to things like watering the lawn. From the report:

The report calculates that if these 18 cities achieved just a twenty-five percent reduction in outdoor water use, they could save, collectively, an average of 147 million gallons every day during the summer. The Texas Water Development Board has estimated that about half of the water we use on our landscapes is wasted due to overwatering or runoff. Reducing summer peak usage can also save millions of dollars in treatment costs.

“The potential for easy savings during the summertime is simply staggering,”said Lacey McCormick, Communications Manager with the National Wildlife Federation. “We can have attractive landscapes without watering during the heat of the day, watering our lawns three times a week, or running our sprinklers during the rain. There’s a big opportunity here to save money while protecting our supplies of drinking water.”

[…]

The report recommends seven efficiency measures that have a proven track report at reducing landscaping water use. The measures include:

Improving Automatic Irrigation Systems: Irrigation systems are becoming increasingly common in Texas. The American Water Works Association estimates that homes with in-ground irrigation systems use 35% more water than homes without irrigation systems. Many of these systems are not designed or installed correctly-staff at the Austin Water Utility report water waste of 20% to 50% from poor system design. The report recommends that cities should take steps to make sure that these systems are as efficient as possible by offering free system audits and rebates on upgrades such as rain sensors.

Rethinking the Lawn: Over the past five years, permits for close to 600,000 new single family homes have been issued in Texas. Decisions made today about the types of lawns and landscapes to install in new developments have the potential to influence water use for decades to come. Smaller areas of turfgrass and the use of drought-resistant grasses can make a big contribution to reducing water use. Unfortunately, with only a few notable exceptions, Texas cities are currently doing little to guide new developments in this way.

Landscaping Rebates: Cities across the country have created programs paying customers to replace their turfgrass with more water-efficient landscaping. These programs are becoming more common in Texas, with entities such as the City of Pflugerville, San Antonio Water System and BexarMet Water District offering rebate programs. To ensure that customers learn new watering habits, the report recommends that utilities should make payment of rebates contingent on customers actually reducing their water use.

Rainwater Harvesting: Capturing rainwater has real potential as a source of water for Texas. A report published by the Texas Water Development Board estimated that a metropolitan area the size of Dallas could capture roughly 2 billion gallons of water annually if just 10 percent of the roof area was used to harvest rainwater. Although several Texas cities currently offer rebates on rain barrels, this source of water is currently seriously underutilized.

Rate Structures: A strongly tiered rate structure is the most equitable way to price water. Most residential customers use limited amounts of water, placing smaller demands on the system, and should pay less per unit of water as a result. For example, the San Antonio Water System has found that about 80% of their residential customers do not see any significant rise in their bills during the summertime. This indicates that the 30% bump in total water use that San Antonio sees during the summertime is primarily caused by a small portion of the utility’s customers. However, heavy users in most cities usually pay little more-and often less-per thousand gallons than frugal water users.

The full report is here (PDF), and it’s worth your time to read. Remember that regardless of what a city’s average daily water usage is, it has to build infrastructure – treatment plants, pipelines, etc – based on peak usage. Shaving even a bit off that peak can mean the difference between having to spent millions to build and operate another plant, or having to build a larger and more expensive plant, and not having to do so. A little bit of conservation can mean a lot of savings.

Here in Houston, where we are blessed/cursed with generally abundant rainfall, our summer usage only increases by about 14% over winter. Of course, our water rates just went up by 30%, so the potential for savings here is just as great. And on an absolute scale, even though Houston’s consumption rate only increases a little, our total usage increase is among the highest just because we have the most people. As such, if we all trimmed back a bit, the cumulative effect would be large.